The anthropomorphic cartoon moon is in the seventh house, and Glo Gang has entered its Age of Aquarius. The evidence is all there on Chief Keef’s Instagram which, in recent months, has been filled with dozens of commissioned and original works of art. They’re mostly portraits of himself and his friends, in varying degrees of trippiness. Often, they’re depicted (by what seems to be Glo Gang’s in-house artist, a silver-bearded Angeleno called Bill Da Butcher) as members of a cheery cartoon solar system; Blood Money, Keef’s cousin and the Gang’s eldest member, who was shot and killed in Chicago last spring, is memorialized as a tattooed moon with angel wings. There’s a collage of Keef as a Viking skeleton holding America in a cage (he calls it “Americun Shakedown”); a sketch of a dread-headed Mount Rushmore; a triptych depicting a G-rated Keef engaging in water sports. Last month, Keef helped curate a gallery show in collaboration with media company FRANK151, to which he also contributed original artwork. He’s turned his Los Angeles home into his own private museum, obsessing over the minutia of presentation (“Trying to see if I should keep what’s up up?”)—this from the guy whose preferred mode of self-expression, not so long ago, was “Emojis”.
Then again, Keef’s thorough immersion in his own universe of aesthetics echoes his musical agenda since the release of his divisive major label debut two years ago. Since then, the Chicago ex-pat has refused to be understood on any terms other than his own, rejecting anything remotely resembling his 2012 crossover hits in favor of abstraction and obscurity. He drowned the crowd-pleasing hooks of Finally Rich in Auto-Tune and promethazine (he’s blamed critically panned 2013 mixtapes Bang 2 and Almighty So on the latter) and probed the outer limits of vocal performance. Yips, skrrrrts, and gurgles took the place of coherent language. He became obsessed with making beats, an entirely non-verbal mode of expression; on October’s brooding, distorted Back From the Dead 2 tape, released a week after the announcement that Keef was dropped from Interscope, he produced 16 of its 20 tracks. Nobody, his long-awaited sophomore album, released suddenly and without much fanfare, is similarly experimental, and equally devoid of any conventional hits. But where Keef’s spent the last two years attempting to hide in plain sight, stubbornly obfuscating his own thoughts to compensate for his discomfort in the spotlight, Nobody is, at its best, strikingly lucid. Maybe his recent passion for visual art has rekindled an interest in direct expression. Maybe he’s just growing up.
Finally Rich, as an album title, was aspirational as much as it was declarative, harnessing the laws of attraction to will fortune into existence. Nobody is a similar statement of purpose, but this time, the goal is to disappear. It’s not hard to understand Keef’s preoccupation with obscurity. Thrust into the public eye in 2012, he became a stand-in for Chicago’s ills more than an artist in his own right. His music had always been characterized by themes of loyalty and betrayal (trust only your inner circle—the rest are dangerous); hysterical media attention only reinforced that. If you’re going to be misunderstood anyway, why not ensure it? Equal parts knee-jerk trolling (he’s still a teenager) and defense mechanism, he hurtled towards oblivion, in what looked a lot like a downward spiral.
Nobody, much like BFTD2, is a dispatch from this void. But BFTD2 functioned as a submersion into his new aesthetic, more concerned with style than meaning; it narrowed in on weird grooves, unorthodox rhyme patterns, mood over everything. Almost in spite of its mission statement, Nobody is sharper, clearer, and more purposeful. It’s a neat 12 tracks, some of them less than two minutes long, executive produced by Glo Gang’s 12 Million. A handful feel more like sketches than completed works. But its high points have a clarity unmatched within Keef’s last two years of work; at times, he’s straight up vulnerable. He may not be coming back to earth any time soon, but he’s looking his audience in the eyes.
Keef’s lyricism has gotten slyer. His wit seems sharper; sometimes he cracks subtle jokes at his own expense. On “Pit Stop”, an album cut on par with any of Finally Rich’s, he quips, “Watch out, I’m 18 and I’m driving fast!” In the context of his public traffic arrests (in 2013, pulled over for driving 110 in a 55, he told police, “Well, it’s a fast car, that’s why I bought it”), it’s the equivalent of Taylor Swift winkingly acknowledging her reputation as a crazy girlfriend on “Blank Space”. “Twelve Bars”—a hypnotic burst of chimes that, like much of Nobody, is a closer descendent of cloudy cult favorite “Citgo” than anything else on Finally Rich—is a play on the drill canon as much as it is an exercise in wordplay. It nods to the drill canon, only to subvert it with novelty bars like, “Driving 12 cars at one time!”
But on “Hard”, one of the album’s two emotional cornerstones, Keef goes beyond crafty in-jokes and bares his soul. Over a beat somewhere between 40’s sulky symphonics circa Nothing Was the Same and the wispy New Age chirps of Lil B’s Rain in England, Keef delivers two of his most vulnerable verses to date (along with some pretty impressive bar-for-bar lyricism). “She don’t accept me, but she speak to my watch/ She won’t look at me, but she see I go hard,” he sings, honing in on the romantic insecurities that have emerged in Keef’s work for years now, from 2012’s “Save That Shit” to 2014’s “No”. He shrugs at his success, recognizing it as more of a burden than a blessing—everything’s pointless anyway. “Money ain’t that much, I’ll give it up… Life ain’t that much, I’ll live it up.” He’s at once proud of his ability to support his people and wary of being used: “Everybody eat, I’ll bill it up/ Baby I’ll keep my mouth closed, I’ll seal it up.” Even its title references the unflinching ubermasculinity that characterizes drill and its proponents, and beyond that, the temperament expected of black men from a young age. In early interviews, Keef claimed to be 16 going on 300; he’d long since been a man, but in many ways remained immature. These days, he’s just a world-weary 19.
It’s Nobody’s title track, though, that gives the sharpest insights as to where Keef’s at these days. Initially teased on Instagram last summer, with its Kanye West feature and threadbare Willie Hutch sample, “Nobody” hinted at a return to the old, coherent Keef. Instead, it’s as sonically inscrutable as ever. The snares are decidedly off. Kanye’s contributions don’t go too far beyond that 15-second clip. Listeners wondered if there’d been some mistake, if the track was unfinished, if Kanye had signed off on this at all. It doesn’t matter: “Nobody” isn’t about Kanye, it’s about Keef at his rawest and most honest. “They thought I was a joke,” he burbles with a melancholy that suggests he reads the comments. It’s Keef’s most clear-eyed dispatch yet from the void into which he’s hurtled himself. “I can’t fear nobody… I can’t hear nobody… I can’t see nobody,” he mewls, almost giddy with loneliness as he watches his surroundings fade to black, romancing the abyss. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re better than the alternative. It was awfully dreary, anyway—being Somebody.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1DOrdbG